Biden devotes $36 billion to save union workers’ pensions
By Peter Baker
President Joe Biden announced late last week that he was investing $36 billion in federal funds to save the pensions of more than 350,000 union workers and retirees, a demonstration of commitment to labor just a week after a rupture over an imposed settlement of a threatened rail strike.
Biden gathered top union leaders at the White House to make the commitment, described by the White House as the largest-ever award of federal financial support for worker and retiree pension security. The money, coming from last year’s COVID-19 relief package, will avert cuts of up to 60% in pensions for Teamster truck drivers, warehouse workers, construction workers and food processors, mainly in the Midwest.
“Thanks to today’s announcement, hundreds of thousands of Americans can feel that sense of dignity again knowing that they’ve provided for their families and their future, and it’s secure,” said Biden, who was joined by Sean O’Brien, president of the Teamsters, and Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, as well as Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
The pension investment came just a week after Biden prodded Congress to pass legislation forcing a settlement in a long-running dispute between rail companies and workers, heading off a strike that could have upended the economy just before the holidays. Although the agreement included wage increases, schedule flexibility and an additional paid day off, several rail unions had rejected it because it lacked paid sick leave. A move to add seven days of paid sick leave failed in Congress before Biden signed the bill.
The showdown over the rail settlement left Biden in the awkward position of forcing a deal over the objections of some union members even though he had promised to be the “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” The pension rescue plan that was announced Thursday put him back in the more comfortable stance of allying himself with organized labor, a key constituency of the Democratic Party.
The $36 billion, drawn from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed last year, will go to the Central States Pension Fund, which is largely made up of Teamster workers and retirees. The fund has been the largest financially distressed multi-employer pension plan in the nation. As a result of shortfalls, pensioners were facing 60% cuts over the next few years, but the White House said the federal funding will now ensure full benefits through 2051.
Many of the affected workers and retirees are clustered in Midwestern states that have been battlegrounds in recent elections, including Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota as well as other states such as Missouri, Illinois, Florida and Texas.
In his remarks, Biden expressed sympathy for workers and retirees facing cuts not of their own making. “For 30, 40, 50 years, you work hard every single day to provide for your family. You do everything right,” he said. “But then imagine losing half of that pension or more through no fault of your own. You did your part. You paid in. Imagine what it does financially to your peace of mind, to your dignity.”
O’Brien hailed Biden’s move. “Our members chose to forgo raises and other benefits for a prosperous retirement, and they deserve to enjoy the security and stability that all of them worked so hard to earn,” he said in a statement. Although much of public policy is determined by big corporations, “it’s good to see elected officials stand up for working families for once.”
Republicans called it a politically inspired payoff. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the top GOP member on the House Ways and Means Committee, dubbed the rescue plan “the largest private pension bailout in American history,” saying it rewarded those who mismanaged their pensions.
“Despite years of bipartisan negotiations and recommendations, Democrats rejected protections for union workers in other underfunded multiemployer plans that are not as politically connected as the Teamsters’ Central States plan,” Brady said. “Now, American taxpayers are being forced to cover promises that pension trustees never should have been allowed to make.”